S.S. Toddings (1847-1935)
In acknowledgement of Black History Month, The Royal Gazette continues the publication of stories throughout February on African-American, Black Bermudian and global African people, events and institutions, and their contributions in history
S.S. Toddings, Sr, the son and grandson of former enslaved persons, was the founder and long-time Editor of the Mid-Ocean News, and the most prominent newsman of his generation.
During his 65-year career as publisher and editor, first of the Colonist then the Mid-Ocean, he courted controversy for his strong opinions and earned respect for his courage. He was sued at least twice for libel, and spent several days in jail for refusing to reveal a source.
Toddings was the first publisher to print full reports of parliamentary debates, which allowed for greater transparency into local politics. He was also a Member of Parliament, and a church organist, first at St Peter’s in St George’s, then at St Theresa’s in Hamilton, after his conversion to Catholicism.
Most intriguingly, he was the son and grandson of former enslaved persons — a fact that has only recently come to light. His Black ancestry was apparently an open secret during his lifetime, according to historian and former Royal Gazette Editor William S. Zuill.
But he was able to cross the racial divide in segregated Bermuda and live as a White man.
Toddings was born in St David’s, the eldest of five children born to Charlotte (Outerbridge) Musson and Thomas Toddings. Thomas Toddings, a White Bermudian, had a variety of occupations. He was a schoolteacher and later became a grocer and a successful auctioneer in St George’s.
S.S. Toddings’s mother was born Charlotte Outerbridge, but later adopted the surname of Musson. She was the daughter of Rebecca Outerbridge. Both Rebecca and Charlotte were born into slavery, but were freed before Emancipation in 1834. Despite the one-drop-of-Black-blood rule that prevailed in Bermuda, Toddings, who looked White, did not appear to encounter any economic barriers because of his Black ancestry.
He achieved a level of education that was rare for Bermudians of his era, Black or White. He received his high school at the Military School in St George’s and then attended Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada, where he graduated with a BA degree in 1866.
At Mount Allison, Toddings met his first wife, Jane Allison, the daughter of a professor, Henry Allison, and a niece of Mount Allison’s founder, Sir Charles Allison. The couple were married in New Brunswick in 1876. Jane died in Bermuda in 1888.
In 1891, Toddings married Agnes Costello, of St George’s, with whom he had two sons, Seward Jr and Thomas. He converted to Catholicism after his marriage to Agnes.
Toddings began his “meteoric career”, which is how the Bermuda Recorder described it, as a junior reporter at the Halifax Herald, where he worked for three years.
Upon his return to Bermuda in 1869, he and his brother, Lindsay, purchased the Colonist newspaper, which had been in existence for three years and was published in St George’s.
Shortly after talking over the newspaper, the brothers increased publication from every two weeks to weekly. In 1871, Toddings began publishing full reports of parliamentary debates. He travelled from St George’s to the House of Assembly in Hamilton, dressed in formal attire, including a top hat, according to William S. Zuill. He eventually received a government grant for his efforts.
In 1882, he became sole owner of the newspaper, and three years later moved its operations to Hamilton. In 1907, with the formation of the Colonist Press Company, Toddings became a principal shareholder and continued on as Editor. In 1911, he quit after a dispute with the directors and started the Mid-Ocean the same year in August.
Elected to Parliament in 1904, he served in the House until 1911 when he lost his seat. His defeat was attributed to his support of a subsidy for the Quebec Steamship Company to provide a regular ship to St George.
The Mid-Ocean’s first issue, a four-pager printed on pink paper to distinguish it from the competition, came off the presses on August 12, 1911.
A year after starting the Mid-Ocean, Toddings hired an American business manager with 30 years’ experience in the print industry. Toddings put out the paper with a staff of two. His elder son and namesake helped out during school holidays. Toddings remained with the newspaper for the rest of his life. The Mid-Ocean initially published twice a week, later increasing publication to three times a week. Meanwhile, he served in Parliament for five more years, from 1923.
Toddings had strong opinions and did not shy away from expressing them, either in the House of Assembly or in his newspaper. He backed a railway for Bermuda and was critical of government for dragging its heels getting it up and running. Bermuda would not have a railway until 1931, four years before his death.
He supported widening Town Cut channel to allow bigger ships into St George, which was highly controversial. He was vindicated with the arrival of the bigger ships, which were a boost to the economy.
In 1907, not surprisingly for a college-educated man, he expressed strong support in Parliament for raising for the school-leaving age to 14. His views fell on deaf ears. Bermuda would not raise the school-leaving age beyond age 13 until the 1960s.
He was sued for libel twice. He lost the case in 1874 — and went to jail for refusing to reveal his source — during his tenure as Editor of the Colonist. He was more successful in 1919 with the second libel case, which was thrown out of court.
In addition to being an MP and a church organist, Toddings was chairman of St John Ambulance. He followed in his father’s footsteps and served as Overseer of the Poor. He fell afoul of unsympathetic East Enders for playing a key role in the construction of a “poor house” in St George’s to house destitute seniors.
As for his Black ancestry, while it was never mentioned publicly, he did not cut ties to his Black family in an attempt to hide it. He was close to his mother and grandmother and the only surviving Mid-Ocean issues — for the year 1912 — point to prominent coverage of Black events.
A mass celebration of the island’s Black lodges and an AME church conference made the front pages as did the graduation of Black Bermudian nurse Mary Tucker from the Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing in New York in May 1912.
Toddings had the strong work ethic of Bermuda’s other pioneering publishers, The Royal Gazette’s Donald McPhee Lee and the Recorder’s A.B. Place, putting in long hours on the job. Like Lee, Toddings worked almost up to the time of his death.
When Bermuda finally got a railway, Toddings commuted from St George’s to his office in Hamilton by train. On March 20, 1935, he fell while disembarking, sustaining leg injuries from which he never recovered.
He died of gangrene on April 24, 1935, one week after he turned 88. He was Bermuda’s longest-serving journalist, beating Donald McPhee Lee’s 55-year record by ten years.
Newspaper obituaries were fulsome in their praise. He was called “dean” and the “doyen” of journalists. The Gazette said Bermuda had lost the services of “an exceptionally able and far-seeing journalist” , while the Recorder said “to speak to journalism in Bermuda without mentioning the name of Samuel Seward Toddings would be like staging Hamlet and leaving out the prince of Denmark.”
The Recorder also said that for years Mr Toddings “had been our newspaperman”, perhaps a veiled reference to his Black ancestry. His death was also reported in The New York Times.
Toddings was survived by his sons, Seward Jr, who succeeded him as Editor, and Thomas, who lived in New York.
His funeral was a major event. A mass at St Theresa’s was preceded by a public viewing. His body was transported by train from the Tennis Stadium train station to St George’s for burial in the parish graveyard.
The Mid-Ocean — the name was changed to the Mid-Ocean News in 1940 — continued to publish, with son Seward in the editor’s chair. Seward Jr enjoyed a distinguished career in public service, serving as a coroner, a Member of Parliament and chairman of the Defence Board. He retired as Editor in 1959.
The Mid-Ocean News was acquired by Bermuda Press Ltd, owner of The Royal Gazette in 1962. It continued publication until 2009, when it folded.
S.S. Toddings was an exceptionally talented successful and fearless publisher, who seems to have been held in high esteem by White and Black Bermudians.
He was said to have been an engaging speaker, and was encouraged to write his memoirs, but never did — perhaps out of a desire to keep his Black ancestry under wraps.
The Royal Gazette’s obituary suggests it may have been in on Toddings’s secret. It said: “He was never a seeker after political or social honours and his biographers find many gaps in his life’s work because of his reticence to discuss himself.”
The absence of Mid-Ocean publications for the years he was Editor is another gap. With the exception of the year 1912, there are no surviving copies. (Copies from 1961 to 2009 are available on microfilm at the Bermuda National Library.) It is a major loss for Bermuda in general, and given Toddings’s editorial policy, for the Black Bermudian community in particular.
Despite the gaps, Toddings’s life story is remarkable and his slave ancestry makes it even more compelling.
• Courtesy of Meredith Ebbin and bermudabiographies.bm